REVIEW: A ‘Royal’ August at the Joyce Theater

Dance · Reviews
Calvin Richardson, Joseph Sissens in Christopher Wheeldon’s “Within the Golden Hour”

The Royal Ballet has come to town – or rather, a small but potent ensemble of eight Royal Ballet dancers, who have taken up residence at the intimate Joyce Theater for the first of four Joyce Ballet Festival programs. Curated by RB artistic director Kevin O’Hare and blandly titled “An Evening of Solos and Duets,” if offered a mini-history of the Royal Ballet over the past 50 years, in terms of choreographers who have made significant contributions.

The masters most closely associated with the company and shaped its profile for decades, Frederick Ashton and Kenneth Macmillan, were represented, along with more recent regulars Christopher Wheeldon, Wayne McGregor, and Liam Scarlett.

The eight dancers included well-known veteran principals Edward Watson (now in his 25th year with the company), Lauren Cuthbertson and Sarah Lamb.  Romany Pajdak, a First Artist, joined in 2004, while the other four dancers – Nicol Edmonds,  Calvin Richardson, Joseph Sissens and newly named principal Marcelino Sambé – have been with the company for seven years or less. The program was quite a showcase for the newest of these, Sissens, whose lanky elegance and appealing if slightly untamed quality were on view in four works. In general, this quintet of men made the case that the Royal’s current male roster is a strong one.

Ashton was represented by two solos – one iconic, the other much less well-known. Sissens took on the stunning and difficult “Dance of the Blessed Spirits” the choreographer created for Anthony Dowell for a 1978 gala. About a decade ago Dowell taught it to David Hallberg who performed it in New York and elsewhere. One can immediately sense that the flowing, pristine choreography was tailored to Dowell’s uniquely sensual phrasing and pristine purity. The solo is hauntingly lovely, filled with images of searching and seeking, and closing with a benediction. It includes occasional echoes of the similarly pristine male choreography in “Symphonic Variations.” Sissens couldn’t quite hide the tension that impeded the desired fluidity in his phrasing, but he gave a highly captivating performance.

Romany Pajdak, “Five Brahms Waltzes in the Manner of Isadora Duncan,” Sir Frederick Ashton

Pajdak closed the program with a performance of “Five Brahms Waltzes in the Manner of Isadora Duncan,” the 1976 solo Ashton made for Lynn Seymour. She has a lovely ability to fill space with sculptural phrasing, but her long-limbed, almost spiky physique couldn’t summon the earthy sensuality and weighted eloquence that Seymour possessed and which clearly inspired Ashton to envision her as a latter-day Isadora. The Joffrey’s Jodie Gates, who danced it during the 1980s, was  truly memorable in it. Pajdak used her pliant back to lovely effect, but somehow the essence of the solo eluded her.  Kate Shipway was the admirable pianist.

The central duet from Macmillan’s 1966 “Concerto” – the oldest work represented on the program – was truly mesmerizing and surprisingly timeless as performed by Cuthbertson and Edmonds. Abstaining from the strum und drang of the highly passionate and dramatic narrative ballets he was creating at the time, Macmillan here created a duet in which the lines, angles and planes of the two bodies create a Platonic ideal of eloquence. It’s effortlessly matched to the serenely wistful beauty of the slow movement from Shostakovich’s Piano Concerto No. 2.  Time seems to stand still, almost as though they’re moving in slow motion. Their rapt focus and quiet authority certainly enhanced the choreography’s impact. Shipway eloquently played a solo piano transcription of the concerto.

Edward Watson, Sarah Lamb in Wayne McGregor’s “Qualia Pas de Deux”

As for the works by the current generation of choreographers – the Royal’s resident choreographer Wayne McGregor was represented by excerpts from two works. The earlier one, “Qualia” (2003), had all the hallmarks I expect from his work and find annoying and unrewarding. The costumes resembled underwear; the partnering was aggressively distorted; the woman’s limbs were yanked around harshly. It all screams “this is contemporary ballet, nothing pretty here.” Lamb and Watson brought their mature artistry to it, but beyond momentary thrills – which clearly excited the audience – nothing resonated once the performance was over.

Joseph Sissens, Calvin Richardson in Wayne McGregor’s “Obsidian Tear”

An extended male duet from “Obsidian Tear,” created for the Royal in 2016, was the most intriguing McGregor choreography I’ve seen, and made me wish I could view the complete work for nine men.

Sissens and Richardson, bare-chested, wore flowing half-skirt, half-pants costumes (Sissens in bright red, Richardson in black) that gave them the look of proud tribal warriors.  Their alternating solos and occasional forays into partnering evoked an intriguing relationship, one with a shifting balance of power.

McGregor clearly heard and responded to fascinating depths in Esa-Pekka Salonen’s wonderful “Lachen Verlernt” for solo violin. Some of the time, Sissens came across as the student to Richardson’s master, but at times he became more assertive. The final image, as Richardson walked Sissens offstage with a dominating hand pressed on his shoulder, was quietly disturbing.

Sissens and Richardson were paired again in a fleet and stunning duet from Wheeldon’s “Within the Golden Hour,” created for San Francisco Ballet and added to the Royal’s rep in 2016. They shot out of the wings in well-matched, beautiful leaps, and barely seemed to touch the ground during its brief but potent duration. Lamb and Sambé  followed with a beautifully intricate duet, to Vivaldi, from the same ballet.

The pas de deux from Liam Scarlett’s 2010 “Asphodel Meadows,” which opened the evening. was greatly enhanced by Shipway’s performance (a solo piano version of Poulenc concerto for two pianos). Performed by Pajdak and Richardson, the darkly romantic duet matched every big moment in the music with a big attention-getting lift. There’s no doubt about the authority with which Scarlett choreographs, but this elegantly understated excerpt lacked a strongly personal imprint.

Sissens’ busy night also included “Jojo,” a 2018 solo made for him by Charlotte Edmonds. It looked like so many of the pieces dancers bring to competitions as their “contemporary” selection – full of aggressively show-off material, and just a bit embarrassing.

The Joyce’s Ballet festival continues through August 18 with three additional programs on which several Royal Ballet dancers will be joined by dancers from ABT, NYCB and National Ballet of Canada. These will be curated, in turn, by Lauren Cuthbertson, dancer/designer Jean-Marc Puissant, and Edward Watson.

Ballet Festival | Joyce Theater, NYC | August 6 – 18

photo credit, Maria Baranova

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